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Considering the Alternatives

By Alesha Jackson on Mar 18, 2009 09:53 PM

Blogger and former TFAer Lee Jackson with her 8th grade students on a field trip to the Brooklyn Bridge.

The School Reform Commission has just voted to renew contracts for The New Teacher Project and Teach for America, a month after tabling similar resolutions. The two programs, aimed at placing new teachers in challenging schools, are part of an ongoing attempt to recruit and certify teachers in non-traditional ways.

Alternative certification came of age in the late '80s and early '90s when high teacher turnover and White flight from cities left urban districts largely non-White and poor.  Some new teachers opted to teach in suburban districts for higher pay or more support. Others left the profession altogether. Many alternative certification programs were created to address the demand for teachers in high-need areas.

Teach for America will celebrate its 20th group of new teachers this year.  The brainchild of then-Princeton senior Wendy Kopp, its mission is to narrow achievement gaps by placing high-achieving recent college grads in traditionally underserved schools.  The new teachers, called “corps members,” (CMs) attend a 5-week summer institute before starting to teach in the fall.  I joined the New York City corps in 2002.

The highly-selective program boasts that its recruits measure up: a recent study suggests that student outcomes are three times greater than a veteran teacher. TFA’s high visibility and status draw graduates from all disciplines who might have otherwise never have considered the profession.  At times this advances an any-bright-person-can-do-it mindset that rubs traditional educators the wrong way, at least initially.  What’s more, new corps members also have the benefit of a tight alumni network and elite university partnerships in exchange for committing to work at their assigned placements for two years.  With such brief training and short commitments, programs like TFA spark debate over new teacher quality and retention.

Though TFA assigns corps members to difficult schools, it’s often these schools where teacher know-how is most vital. To their credit, CMs receive support from their university classes as well as ongoing professional development through TFA and the school district.  In some cities, corps members work with a mentor as well.  But even with all of this assistance, intern-certified teachers may not be equipped to handle the dilemmas that surface from learning as they go.

As a former corps member and a current TFA mentor, I’ve witnessed how the scenario plays out in real time.  Corps members, mostly young and white, descend on schools in low-income areas to “do their time.”  Some do it well; some quit.  Others stay on and tread water, counting the days until their commitment ends.  Either way, after two years the vast majority of schools are left hunting for teachers again. 

TFA pushes corps members to achieve measurable gains. But I wonder about the results that can’t be measured: humility and respect for communities and families, for example, or the impact of loss once teachers complete their commitment.

Are programs like Teach for America essentially revolving doors for folks more interested in a community service experience than an ongoing allegiance to teaching? Do they in any way address the problem that the neediest schools are often left with teachers who have the least expertise? It truly seems like a catch-22: tough schools with vacancies must either opt for a new teacher or be faced with the possibility of having no teacher at all.

What are your thoughts on alternative certification programs like TFA?  We invite you to weigh in here. You can also email me at aleshaj@thenotebook.org.

Comments (20)

Submitted by Paul Socolar on March 18, 2009 10:00 pm

One other view on the subject - The District reports that principals are very satisfied with TFA teachers. Here's what they say in the just-approved resolution to renew the contract:

"Locally, principals in Philadelphia express high levels of satisfaction with Teach For America corps members:
* 91 percent reported being satisfied or very satisfied with Teach For America teachers
* 85 percent reported that Teach For America teachers have made a positive difference in the school's environment
* 79 percent reported that Teach For America teachers' impact on student achievement was equal to or better than the
overall faculty at the school, even compared with teachers with more experience."

TFA also cites a good retention rate for corps members' returning for a second year, as well as lots of positive data about their corps members staying in education. But in terms of the important concern about a "revolving door" in our hardest-to-staff schools, one key statistic I'd like to know is how many Philadelphia TFA corps members stay at their schools beyond the 2nd year?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 19, 2009 10:30 am

In considering the Teach for America (TFA) revolving door conundrum, you must remember, TFA teachers are not taking positions away from qualified teachers who were it not for TFA recruits would have a job. The fact of the matter is that there is a dire shortage of teachers and TFA meets an urgent need.

Perhaps the best case scenario is one on which districts would not need organizations like TFA, because there are so many other qualified indviduals, who have gone through traditional certification, who clamour for teaching positions. Until that day comes, TFA (and other alternative route programs) keep doing what you're doing!

Submitted by Erika Owens on March 19, 2009 11:00 am

Part of the issue there is that by relying on programs like TFA it sort of shields the true dysfunction of the current hiring/retention system. You run into this issue a lot, little fixes in health care now or big sweeping changes? And it's a hard issue to get a handle on because there are kids who need teachers now and can't wait for the big sweeping changes, but then the incremental steps may put off or prevent the systematic change necessary.

Another part of the revolving door is that we seem to be saying it's ok for people to sign up for 2 year stints, and for the majority of teachers from any background to leave within 5 years. A portion of TFA teachers may remain teachers, but where do they keep teaching? At charter schools or do they stay at the school they were placed at and work to build a stable teaching staff there?

Submitted by Alesha Jackson on March 19, 2009 8:16 pm

You're exactly right. A repeated in- house comment is that one goal of TFA is to eventually not exist.

I want to be clear here-- I'm not straddling a fence. I think TFA does wonderful things in classrooms. If I didn't, I'd not have associated with the organization as long as I have. But I think it's important to acknowledge the unease that is perpetuated when an organization is named "elite" while the schools they're in are named "low performing" or "under- resourced"-- especially when the placement is a temporary one.

After two years, whether teachers have a great impact or not, the school is left with the same dedicated educators who were there in the first place. The vacancies remain, as do the issues that encourage such vacancies.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 19, 2009 11:46 am

I agree with the last comment. The real problem is the fact that there is a shortage of traditionally certified teachers. What can be done to attract more people to the profession? And attract them to participate in the traditional certification tract?

Until we can answer these questions, we will continue to need these alternative certification programs. Because the alternative to these alternative programs is to have no teachers at all!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 19, 2009 12:34 pm

Regarding Mr. Socolar's question about how many Philadelphia TFA corps members stay in their schools beyond their second year, I can only speak for my school, but the answer is zero. I don't know about corps members at other schools.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 19, 2009 8:35 pm

The post about TFAs NOT taking away jobs from certified teachers is nonsense. That's exactly what they did won in New Orleans when Vallas replaced much of the experienced staff with TFAs.

Their retention rate plummets once their two year commitment is over. Read Mr. Wang's post on this very site. It's half and drops to 35% in the long run. I am talking about TFAs who actually stay in the classroom.

Of course, the principals are going to say they love the TFA program. Newcomers have always been easier to bully than teachers with experience. How come nobody is talking about the crash course TFAs are put through. If all the education that experienced teachers were expected to obtain is not necessary then why havs the administration never said anything about it before? I could have saved myself alot of money in college tuition which came out of my own pocket (no tuition reimbursement from Philly). The number one reason Philly can't keep certified teachers is the lack of support from the administration. As long as 440 continues to look the other way then this problem will exist. We told you that ten years ago and it's still just as true today. Instead of a revolving door place the emphasis on principals for teacher retention. You lose a certain number of teachers then your principal position is lost too. That would force those who think they coast by to start doing their job.

I just talked with a buddy last night whose daughter works for TFA down in Texas. She's already interviewing with schools up north and this is her second year. Considering that she reports to work at 7:30 and stays to 5 plus works some Saturdays I can see why school districts would want TFAs. It's a hell of a deal for the districts, but it also explains why TFAs skip out after their two years are up.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 22, 2009 9:03 pm

I found out through another site it TFAs make up 55% of the public school teachers in the Big Easy. Will be interesting to see how thing pan out this coming year when both Vallas jumps ship and the TFAs' two years are up.

Submitted by Down in the Basement (not verified) on March 23, 2009 12:12 am

Paul Vallas wants to be the next governor of Illinois...

He is like a hurricane...he storms into each city...destroys a lot...tries to build up his resume...as a "reformer"...jumps ship...and then goes on to the next district to muck up...

You see...Paulie Boy will be in Chicago soon announcing his gubernatorial aspirations...

What a weenie...

Submitted by Paul Socolar on March 23, 2009 12:37 pm

Hi - name-calling is not welcomed on this site - as you'll see in our terms of usage, we have tried to set some ground rules to have a constructive conversation here. If you feel compelled to call someone a weenie, please do it elsewhere.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 23, 2009 7:50 pm

I doubt that Paul is going to run again for the Gov. position. He lost to the recently impeached Blago and that's when he came over our way. Last I heard Paul was trying to get elected as President of the Cook County Board. He was also out in Rockford (audtioning for Cheap Trick!?!?!?) helping them selected a new school superintendent (not himself, mind you). Sounds like he's setting up something back in IL for when he leaves Naw 'leans.

Submitted by f (not verified) on March 19, 2009 11:53 pm

The statement, " that principals are very satisfied with TFA teachers", implies that all principals are speaking to this issue. In fact the placement of TFA teachers to a particular school is a matter that is decided by individual principals. This is a fairly small sub group of principals. I would dare to say that principals who do choose to use TFA teachers to fill vacancies are not likely to invalidate the wisdom of their initial decision by expressing low satisfaction in a survey concerning TFA teachers.

I am a principal in the Philadelphia School District at a full site selection school. Our leadership team has never had a difficult time finding qualified certified teachers to fill vacant positions at our school. There is a large pool of recent college of education graduates who are seeking employment in Philadelphia. Instead of using Temp. Employees provided by an outside organization (TFA) our district should focus attention on how to recruit employees from this pool of applicants. These are individuals who are intent on making teaching their career.

Submitted by Helen Gym on March 23, 2009 3:29 pm

I am not sure if this is Jan Sklaroff from Down in the Basement - if it is, I think you need to make a distinction between the terrible problem you encountered and are dealing with, and the comment made above by a principal writing a thoughtful post about the issue. There is no such thing as a disrespected profession - all individuals, teachers included, do both a service and a disservice to their professions. Ironically, Jan, the principal who posted above agrees with your position that we need to invest in quality teaching opportunities rather than rely so heavily on stopgap measures. Let's talk about how to make those real.

Submitted by Down in the Basement (not verified) on March 23, 2009 10:20 pm

Helen...reach out and contact me...

You better believe what happened was terrible...in OUR country, too...

I have no confidence in our Constitution...

Our rights have been trashed...give me a call and I will tell you things that will make your socks fly off yer feet...

Thanks.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 20, 2009 1:42 pm

By relying on programs like TFA, the School District is diminishing teaching as a profession. The School District, at least in 2007-2008, hired TFA teachers while not hiring teachers who had student taught in the SDP. It is easier to "plug in" a TFA teacher, without certification, than hire someone with certification. TFA provides "flexibility;" the new teachers are assigned to high school positions in subject areas which was not their major (e.g. psychology major teaching math). I've also known principals to reassign TFA teachers in November in a "hard to fill" position regardless of their intended certification area. Maybe this is one reason why some principals enjoy TFA teachers... I'm sure they also enjoy having someone more "pliable," without tenure, etc.

That said, I have worked with TFA teachers who, are energetic and willing to put in the time for two year. Nevertheless, for the most part, they do not intend to stay in the classroom. After two years, they go to graduate school to either leave education or assume leadership roles. Most leave the school to which they were originally assigned. They have a strong, influential network and connections that most teachers, who, like me, went to a state school, and therefore do not have the connections or the "elite" shingle to hang.

Yes, some of the "innovators" in education are products of TFA. (e.g. Rhea in DC, founders of KIPP, etc.) They "did their two years," left the classroom and now are attempting to "reinvent" education. Both Rhea and KIPP rely on new, inexperienced teachers. KIPP is notorious for burning people out. As a parent, I'd like my children to have teachers with experience and commitment to the school / community. As a teacher, I did not feel very secure in my ability to understand how my students were learning until my 10th - 11th year in the classroom. I certainly do not think someone should head a school or a school system (or become a professor of teachers, for that matter) who has less than 10 years of classroom experience. (In New Zealand, principals must teach for 15 years before becoming administrators. )

Traditional ed certification programs aren't necessarily the answer to teacher retention in "hard to place" schools. Holistic mentoring, strong, consistent and fair administrators, teacher input into curricula, more opportunities for teachers and parents/guardians to interact on more than "problems," etc. may be a way to start retaining teachers. Learning to be a teacher is not going to happen in 5 weeks or 4 years. It is an ongoing process. In some countries, daily teacher collaboration, teacher networks, etc. are in place to work through the days when things seem impossible.

A recent study by two Penn professors highlighted in Education Weekly found there are enough math and science teachers in education programs. The problem is retention - they leave for other professions. TFA, and similar programs, don't deal with the actual problem - retention. They are short term, temp programs that have become long term (20 years). I don't want my kids having someone new every 1 - 2 years; I assume other parents/guardians also like teachers with experience or who plan on staying for a longer haul.

Submitted by Alesha Jackson on March 21, 2009 10:21 am

Thank you for your thoughtful post!

Submitted by hsteacher (not verified) on March 24, 2009 8:45 pm

We should focus on TNTP and how they recruit highly qualified teachers who plan to stay. Whether or not you agree with TFA they, like the TNTP work hard to close the achievement gap by recruiting highly ambitious and qualified people.

Submitted by G. Endres on March 25, 2009 11:05 am

We could go back and forth all day long about which of these stop-gap programs is beneficial or not. The fact remains that they are doing education "on the cheap."

This is exactly the same as when they substituted parent "truancy officers" for professionally trained attendance officers. They get to hire amateurs to do the job of professionals at lower salaries. If there is a turnover every one or two years and another new recruit is placed in the position, the salary demands remain low....so much the better for the principal's budget. Hire enough TFA's and he/she can maybe afford a librarian or a counselor.

I keep asking this question and have never received a satisfactory answer: Can a bright biology/chemistry major go to a hospital and offer to become a medical intern for less money than a graduate doctor of medicine? Can a political science major apply to work at a law firm in place of a licensed attorney? (Laughable right?)

The only profession that allows this kind of amateur participation is education.

Teachers need to do what doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers and every other certified profession has already done. Demand that a license to teach means exactly that and be awarded only to those who complete a fully accredited pedagogical training program.

Add some professional salaries to the pot and they might retain the best and brightest in this much unappreciated profession.

Submitted by Dina Portnoy (not verified) on March 27, 2009 9:08 pm

As a veteran classroom teacher of 25 years in Philadelphia public schools (some of the same schools that now experience vacancies and large numbers of TFA teachers) who is currently working with TFA teachers, I want to point out that the issue of retention is not about TFA. School Districts like Philadelphia are not keeping very many of their teachers past five years. TFA teachers have a higher retention rate between the first and second years. Of the Philadelphia TFA teachers I have worked with, 50% have stayed in urban classrooms past their second year. Some who left have returned to the classroom. Some who never thought of making education their profession have chosen to stay. Alone, TFA is neither the problem nor the solution to the challenges facing us. I believe that we should see ourselves as a community of people concerned about what happens to young people in our schools. I am not a proponent of charter schools; nevertheless, knowing some of the conditions in our schools it is not surprising to me that parents want to send their children to them and that teachers want to teach there. New teachers, no matter who they are, struggle in their classrooms, and TFA teachers are no exception. Along with the need to understand how to teach, there are barriers of race and culture. But knowing these young people as I do now, I also recognize that they often make tremendous strides in their classrooms. In an economy where many young people don't consider doing what I did (stay in one job or one place for a long time), urban school districts have to grapple with how to create an environment where teachers can be successful, are given the opportunity to be creative and thoughtful professionals, and have the sense that their work is respected.

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